Before reaching the major leagues, MLB's top prospects must work their way through the minors. Consisting of three levels, Single A, Double A, and Triple A, it's a grueling path to the big show filled with cramped quarters, questionable transportation, and day-old hot dogs. Still, this life is worth it for those driven athletes hoping to crack a big league roster and have a chance at a World Series ring. After reading this, you'll find out if you have the mental fortitude it takes to literally work your way to the bigs from the ground up.
Could You Survive On $300 A Month?
While there is some money to had in minor league baseball for high-level prospects, there is little, if any, for "non-prospects." Dirk Hayhurst revealed as much in his eye-opening book The Bullpen Gospels: A Non-Prospect's Pursuit Of The Major Leagues and the Meaning of Life."
In the book, Hayhurst says he was paid $800 a month, which dwindled to $300 after taxes, housing, insurance, and clubhouse dues were subtracted. To keep his spirits up, he said he would look to his fellow teammates, smile, and say, "Living the Dream!"
Spring Training Is Free
While minor league prospects get paychecks during the season, when they show up for Spring Training, all they get is "meal money." Sometimes, that allowance is as little as $120 per week, or "three nights at a sit down restaurant."
To stretch their money out, many athletes end up living on diets of fast food and cheap non-perishables. Hayhurst said it was a luxury when he could afford a glass bowl with a lid to be able to cook pasta in the microwave.
There's Money If You Get Drafted High Enough
For some minor league prospects, money is a non-issue. In 2009, the Washington Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick in the draft. Before he officially joined the organization, he signed a record-breaking $15.1 million contract.
The previous rookie signing record was held by Mark Prior in 2001. When the Chicago Cubs made him the top prospect in their system, he was paid a handsome $10.5 million. In 2016, before Strasburg could reach free agency, the Nationals gave him a seven-year, $175 million extension.
Living Quarters Are Tight
Understandably, rooming accommodations on the road for minor leaguers are not good. At home, however, it isn't always much better. Dirk Hayhurst, for example, lived in Portland in a two bedroom apartment with two other players. He slept on an air mattress. One of his teammates slept in a sleeping bag.
The crew shared one bathroom and used an iron and ironing board as their "kitchen and table set." Both his roommates were married and had kids. They shared one bathroom between them, which Hayhurst says would have been okay if everyone was single.
Extra Jobs Are Necessary
During the offseason, it's not uncommon to find minor league baseball players working seasonal jobs just to survive. Sometimes they will have two or three jobs at the same time. Hayhurst even worked a gym for free to offset the cost of a membership so he could stay in shape.
As hard as it is for American-born players to deal with minor league hardships, it's even harder for foreign-born players. Many Latin players, for instance, don't have familial lifelines to reach out to when times get really tough. And they don't have working visas that allow them to get side jobs, either.
If You Complain Then You're A Part Of The Problem
One of the most frustrating aspects of being a minor league baseball player is the idea that you can't complain. Much like college football prospects, the general theory is that everything these players go through helps build their character for when they finally make the big show.
If these players were given more money and better travel and living accommodations, then they might not work as hard. We're not saying that's true, but that's the viewpoint Hayhurst claims MLB places on its prospects in his books.
Reaching The Majors Can Create Culture Shock
Unlike most minor league players, Dirk Hayhurst was eventually able to make it to the majors. He made his debut with the San Diego Padres, but it was his arrival in Southern California that sent him into culture shock.
The Padres put Hayhurst up in a luxurious hotel upon his arrival. They also gave him $1,000 a week for food. One of his teammates lived at the hotel, and paid $260 a night. When Hayhurst choked at the thought, his new friend said, "You're in 'The Show,' you can afford it."
The Grind Isn't Meant For Everyone
In that same conversation with his new teammate, Hayhurst wondered why the money he was now getting wasn't split with the lower leagues. In response, he heard, "Because it's meant to be this way. It's a grind for a reason. The guys who can't take it don't deserve to be up here. Besides, the union fights for us to have all this."
When Hayhurst continued to ask questions, he was told to stop. "This is the only league that matters," he remembered being told.
Players Barter For Equipment
Jeremy Wolf's minor league baseball career ended when he was 24 years old and injured. Since then he has worked to start an organization to help support other struggling players. One of his big goals is to make sure there is enough equipment to go around.
When Wolf first got to the minors he was given three bats. If they all broke, the team wouldn't supply him with new ones. When he did ask for more, he was told, "Nope. We don't do that." To get new bats, he had to trade his batting gloves with a more highly touted prospect.
Some Minor Leaguers Are Speaking Out
Although most minor league baseball players prefer to stay quiet, some, like Jonathan Perrin, are speaking up. Perrin isn't asking for much, either. He'd settle for minimum wage, admitting, "I mean, we know what we signed up for."
All those players like Perrin want is the ability to work on their craft year round. Instead, Perrin says that one offseason, "I would wake up at 6 a.m., go throw at 7, do all my arm care stuff, shower, go to work from 8 to 2, then work out from 2:30 to 4, then go home and eat. Then I'd give pitching lessons from 5 or 6 to 8 p.m. And that was the routine for three, four months."
One Team Is Increasing Wages
At the start of 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that they would be increasing minor league wages by 50 percent. While a much larger pay increase in the lower levels of baseball is still needed, this can be seen as a long overdue start. Hopefully, other teams will follow suit for the well-being of their players.
More importantly, Major League Baseball's current agreement with Minor League Baseball expires in 2020. Rumors around both leagues have indicated that pay will be addressed in some way.
Minor League Teams Are Worth Millions Of Dollars
In 2016, the Sacramento Rivercats were valued by Forbes at $49 million. They play as the Triple A affiliate to the San Francisco Giants and consistently draw some of the biggest crowds in the minors. The next most valuable team was the Charlotte Knights, who are worth $47.5 million.
For comparison's sake, the Giants were valued at $3 billion. The Chicago White Sox, who are affiliated with the Knights, are worth $1.6 billion. The least valuable MLB franchise in the most recent rankings was the Miami Marlins with a $1 billion valuation.
It's Legal For MLB To Pay Prospects In Peanuts
Technically, Major League Baseball can't pay its minor leaguers in peanuts, although it does feel that way. In 2018, the Save America's Pastie Act became law, making it legal for the league to pay it's lower tier players less than minimum wage.
The law does this by exempting minor league players from federal labor law. The good news is the law bumped monthly wages up to $1,160 per month, per player. The bad news is that's still considerably less than minimum wage and is not paid out year round.
The NBA G-League Gives Its Players Salaries
The NBA has its own developmental league, the G-League, which pays it's players $35,000 a year. On top of the minimum salary, G-League players also receive full benefits. The NBA makes revenues of over $8 billion a year.
MLB, which recorded record revenues in 2018 of over $10 billion, doesn't even pay its prospects $10,000 a year. The G-League began in 2001 with eight teams. Today, there are 27 teams in the league, which is seen as a vital tool in the development of future NBA stars.
Minor League Hockey Players Make The Most Money
It's good business to be a Minor League Hockey Player. Although hockey is America's least favorite of the four major sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey), it pays its developmental players the most money. On average, NHL prospects make $47,5000 a year.
In addition to their livable wage, hockey's top prospects are awarded playoff bonuses, given moving expenses, and supplied with career counseling in case they end their pursuits early. And the NHL's top development league, the AHL, has "two way players" that earn six figures while they bounce back and forth between the majors and minors.
It's Rare To Skip The Minors
It's nearly impossible for MLB prospects to jump straight from high school or college to the majors. Even Bryce Harper, who the Washington Nationals took with the first overall pick in 2010, started his career in their minor league system.
Since 2000, only two players have made the rare leap: Xavier Nady and Mike Leake. Neither became the franchise player they were touted as being. Leake has proven to be a valuable journeyman throughout his career, though, and has a career earned run average of 4.03.
Playing Overseas Is Not A Viable Option
It can be argued that one of the reasons the NBA and NHL are forced to pay prospects livable wages is because otherwise they'll play overseas. Auston Matthews, the starting center for the Toronto Maple Leafs, played a year in Switzerland before joining the NHL.
Major League Baseball's biggest overseas competitors are in Japan and Korea, but neither league scouts young players. Those who do make the move to Asia are usually veterans looking to re-establish their value.
There Is No Player's Union
One of the biggest hurdles to face minor league baseball players is their failure to unionize. When a player reaches the Majors, they join the MLBPA. Umps across every level of the sport have their own union, too. The only employees not protected by unions are prospects.
Of course, the NBA doesn't include G-League players in their player's union either. Neither does the NHL, but that hasn't stopped AHL players from unionizing. This is the number one reason they receive the highest pay and best benefits.
One Former Player Is Trying To Make Light Of The Situation
Blake McFarland, a former minor leaguer in the Blue Jays' system knows how hard the grind can be, so he started @minorleaguegrinders on Instagram so players could anonymously share their experiences. He created the account to help players find shared humor in their situation.
Asked why he's not promoting more concerning issues, McFarland explained, "We see this account as pure entertainment, and always meant for it to just be a funny page where fellow players can post, laugh and reminisce over."
Players Move Around A Lot
Unlike the NBA's G-League, MLB's minor league system is filled with independently-run franchises. These farm teams agree to two- to four-year contracts with major league teams, meaning they can switch affiliations a lot. The Columbus Clippers were affiliated with the Yankees from 1979 until 2007, when they reached an agreement with the Washington Nationals.
Two years later, the Clippers re-affiliated again, this time aligning themselves with the Cleveland Indians. As this happened, each team's prospects were forced to move to their major league club's new affiliation.